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Monday, April 8, 2013
McGary's career full of peaks and valleys

By Adam Finkelstein

Like a volatile Wall Street stock, the perception is that Mitch McGary’s individual status has hit an unprecedented amount of peaks, valleys and cliffs over the years. It’s a pattern that seemingly dates all the way back to his high school days at Chesterton High (Ind.) and continued through his prep school career at Brewster Academy (N.H.) and into his freshman season at Michigan.

Now, with Michigan one win away from a national championship and McGary not only the breakout star of the NCAA tournament but suddenly also a very real candidate to be one and done to the NBA, let’s take a historical look back to see if a pattern does exist after all.

His junior season at Chesterton in 2009-10 was a breakout year from an individual standpoint as he put up 22 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and three steals per game. That spring, he’s was equally impressive with his SYF Playaz AAU squad.

Only weeks later, though, frustrations mounted and McGary considered walking away from the game altogether as he struggled with a diagnosed case of ADHD. Instead, he decided to transfer to Brewster Academy, but he didn’t have a particularly good showing during the July evaluation period.

In the fall of 2010 he arrived at Brewster and suddenly found himself as a role player surrounded by other high-major prospects like Naadir Tharpe, Markus Kennedy, Jakarr Sampson, Durand Johnson, Deonte Burton and Elijah Carter. Faced with an unprecedented challenge, he relied on his intensity and motor to carve out a role for himself.

It wasn’t until the following spring, almost two years ago to this day, that McGary would make the next jump in his game. The setting was the Pittsburgh Jam Fest and after three days of dominance, he had emerged as the top prospect in a loaded field and put the country on notice for big things to come.

Mitch McGary
One of the defining moments of Mitch McGary's high school career was shattering the backboard at the Elite 24.
That performance would turn out to be the springboard for a breakout spring and summer of 2011. As McGary continued to establish his motor and relentless energy, drawing comparisons to Tyler Hansbrough in the process, he climbed all the way up to No. 4 overall in ESPN’s updated recruit rankings in May 2011.

It was more of the same throughout that summer. McGary was the best player at Under Armour’s Best of the Best event in June, had a strong showing at a loaded NBA Top Camp and put up several more impressive performances throughout July with his SYF Playaz squad.

The culmination of his dominant summer was his legendary demolition of a backboard at the Boost Mobile Elite 24 game and his ascension to the No. 2 overall spot in the ESPN 100 in August 2011.

It was also right around that time that an early official visit to Michigan publicized the fact that he had actually graduated in June 2011. This news was the catalyst that put McGary squarely on the NBA radar for the first time, since his post-graduate status in 2011-12 made him technically eligible for the 2012 draft based on age and high school graduation.

With his stock at an all-time high, expectations rose accordingly. And with NBA scouts and top college coaches alike tracking McGary’s every move, nothing short of sheer dominance was acceptable.

There were two problems with that. First, a nagging foot injury dramatically limited his fall 2011 workouts, impacting both his conditioning and mobility. Second, McGary has never been the type of player to do his damage solely in the scoring column, especially not on a Brewster team that was loaded with even more offensive weapons than the year before.

“I think that’s why people thought he was disappointing at times, but when you look back at that team, we might have a few pros with that group,” Brewster head coach Jason Smith said, noting the likes of Jakarr Sampson, Semaj Christon, Jalen Reynolds and T.J. Warren among that year’s roster. “Mitch has always been the guy who impresses with his hustle, with how he sets screens, how he runs the floor for a guy his size, and he’s always been a great teammate.”

The perceived disappointment in McGary’s post-graduate season was punctuated by a nationally televised matchup against The Tilton School (N.H.) in which he went scoreless against top-ranked big man Nerlens Noel.

“That’s really the only thing that jumps out at you,” Smith said. “But I think he still had double-figure rebounds in that game, and I thought he outplayed both Steven Adams and Montrezl Harrell in (the National Prep Championship.)”

McGary was indeed at his best when it mattered most, showing the same reckless abandon he had the previous summer while also being the emotional leader for a Brewster team that captured its second national prep championship in school history.

Mitch McGary
Mitch McGary's strong play has made him the breakout star of the NCAA tournament.
Regardless, the perceived damage to his individual stock was done. His national ranking dipped to No. 27 in the final 2012 ESPN 100, and while teammates Sampson, Christon, Warren and Aaron Thomas were named All-Conference, McGary earned only honorable mention honors.

The pattern has been eerily similar this season at Michigan. He arrived in the summer weighing 255 pounds, according to Smith, but put on 15 pounds when his foot injury flared up, preventing him from participating in most of the team’s conditioning work.

However, his role has grown throughout the season as he has gotten his conditioning back. McGary saw his minutes increase around the first of the year and was playing the better part of most games by February. He didn’t become a full-time member of the starting lineup until the NCAA tournament rolled around, but he has been at his best ever since. For the season he has averaged 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, but in the tournament he’s increased those numbers to 16 points and 11.6 boards while putting up three double-doubles in five games and recording nine rebounds each in the other two.

While that production has made him the breakout star of the NCAA tournament and a very popular name among NBA scouts, all McGary has done is stayed true to form. He’s at his best when the stakes are the highest and his special skill isn’t necessarily the amount of points he’ll score, but his ability to play harder than anyone else on the floor and raise his teammates’ level as a result.

That’s a pattern that now appears clear and is also the basis for Michigan’s chances of earning a national championship on Monday night.